Friday, December 30, 2011

Party Recipe: Oatmeal Bar

So much for a little between-holiday downtime. We seem to be racing toward 2012 at the speed of light. Lots of friends have been in town visiting - so there have been big crab dinners, rock concerts and late nights drinking champagne.

On Friday, I helped put together a birthday breakfast for a member of my team at work. It was such an easy success that I thought I would recommend it here in case anyone needs a New Year's party idea.

Get a large tin of steel cut oats and cook according to directions. You can soak it overnight or use a slow-cooker to make preparation even easier. I added cinnamon, brown sugar and orange zest to the oatmeal once it was close to serving.

Have each guest bring a topping to add to your bar. We had bananas, blueberries, strawberries, shredded coconut, pecans, dried cranberries, dates, brown sugar, maple sugar, cinnamon and delicious orange ginger honey my cousin made. Serve up your oatmeal in giant bowls and cozy up around the tree.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

To Do: Return to Cranford

I had soup to make on Tuesday night and needed something long to watch while picking apart the Christmas turkey. Luckily, Masterpiece Theater had two episodes of Return to Cranford. Anything with Judi Dench is, of course, wonderful and this was so good!

You must watch both parts before the series come down on 1/10. They're each about 90-minutes and I'm tempted to watch them again (wearing a turban) tomorrow, but we have a rock concert to attend across town. And I'm going to have to find the original series for 2007 too.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Dinner Redux

This may be a favorite new tradition for the holidays!

With Rob missing Christmas on account of his cold, I made a big dinner of leftovers for us on Monday night. The two of us sat by candlelight with the bright was the nicest dinner imaginable!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Weekend Roundup: The Christmas that Nearly Wasn't

I don't know how it was in your neck of the woods, but here in California - Christmas was almost cancelled by what seemed to be a massive outbreak of cold and flu. All told, we missed out on seeing 9 different people this weekend due to illness - not our finest holiday. It hit me in mid-December and nearly forced us to call off our holiday brunch. Then, the morning we were headed to Fresno, Rob work up with a fresh cold too.

So, at the last minute, we changed plans. I stocked the house with food for Rob and drove to San Luis Obispo to spend Christmas with my parent's and Rob's sister's family. I woke up on Christmas Eve to see the central coast was just as sunny and pretty as ever:

That morning, we did the regular routine of farmer's market and breakfast in town. Rob's sister called to say that her whole family was sick too - we agreed that the healthiest three kids would come for Christmas dinner along with her. Back at home, I played with my parent's new dog, Peggy, worked on a puzzle and finished the last 40 Christmas cards on my list. Margaret came over for a visit in the afternoon. After her visit, we prepped some food for the next day's party. In the evening, we had a quiet fondue dinner:

Christmas morning was a lot smaller than our usual spread. Only three stockings instead of a big row, but plenty festive:

Rob smartly set up a live Google+ Hangout so that he, and my sister and brother-in-law visiting in New Orleans, could follow along live through my cell phone. Peggy got in on the action and it was starting to feel like a regular holiday after all!

We even had the traditional Holiday Battle of the Electronics. With Rob troubleshooting over the phone, I fixed the wifi and the Roku. With a dash of customer support help, I also got my mom set up on her new Nook:

All the electronics were sorted out and we shifted our attention to cooking for our holiday dinner. We set the table with my family collection of Aantas, including this little Swedish guy my mom purchased in Africa:

Gorgeous turkey came out of the oven right on time:

Rob's sister and her three healthiest kids arrived at 5:00. Rob teleconferenced in again to see them open their gifts and we sat down to a festive holiday meal:

Of course, your own mother's Christmas dinner is always the best in the universe - but this year's was particularly great. Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, white wine gravy, roasted brussels sprouts and creamed pearl onions:

Pumpkin and apple pie for dessert. We said goodbye to our guests and did the dishes before turning in.

On Monday morning, the final sick-call came in at 7:30 am. Flu changed my breakfast plans with two friends from high school was down to just one. I had a great time with Sarah at Big Sky, drinking plenty of their good coffee. After breakfast, it was time to drive home to my poor, sick husband.

Quick drive and uneventful. Once home, I made Rob big bowls of chicken & rice soup for a late lunch. In the evening, we walked around downtown doing a few errands - the first time Rob had been outside the apartment since Friday morning. The city was packed with sale-hunters and not yet removed of Christmas decorations. So pretty!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Party Recipe: Holiday Brunch

This is such an easy annual party. Even when sick, it's a breeze to put together a menu for 20+ guests. Even cute, tiny guests in velvet party dresses:

The menu this year consisted of our favorite local ham roasted in the oven for 5 hours, and served with truffle mustard, a giant smoked salmon from Trader Joe's with rye toast and cream cheese, savory bread pudding with mushrooms and arugula, pear and pomegranate salad and hot pain epi rolls from Acme bakery:

Guests arrived at 11:00, just as the food was coming out of the oven. Most everything was prepared the night before or only required a little bit of prep in the morning, so we had plenty of time to gussy up the house. Along with all the food, we served cranberry hibiscus mimosas, hot spiced cider and coffee. Rob and I dressed in our red and green finest!

And our guests were perfectly decked out, too. How cute are Rebecca and Derek with those polka dots and that bow tie?! I love a couple that knows how to dress for an occasion.

Weekend Roundup: Holiday Brunch

I'm still recovering from this weekend. As seems to be holiday tradition, I come down with a fresh cold on Friday before the season's biggest social weekend. I blew off two really fun sounding Christmas parties and barely recovered in time for our big brunch on Sunday.

Despite the cold making me pretty useless and the fact I lost (misplaced, hopefully) the car key and we had to do all our errands on foot, everything came together. Major thanks to Rob and Margaret for their help! I'll share more details of the party soon. Here's a peek at the pretty asian pear salad:

In the meantime, all the presents are wrapped and I'm at "O" in the holiday card address book. We might make it to Christmas in one piece after all!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Japanese Fashion: Ponchos

I stocked up on fashion magazines in Japan. The amount of inspirational outfits, hairstyles and nail polish designs they put together in these things is amazing, so it doesn't really matter if you can't read Japanese at all.

I snapped pictures from More magazine to share with you over the next few weeks. For today, seven cute ways to wear ponchos! The trick is apparently short skirts or shorts with boots.

The plaid scarf I wore at the zoo last weekend is from Japan and has wood buttons so that it can switch from a pashmina to a poncho. Super cute. If I were better at sewing, I'd add buttons to all my scarves!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What to Wear: Winter White

My office moved to a new building last week and my 30-second commute grew to a 20 minute walk across SOMA and Union Square. It's been fun to have a bigger transition in the morning and see all the holiday storefronts, but I've needed to bundle up like never before!

This outfit was inspired by my new search for warm walking outfits, an ensemble I spotted in Osaka and the elegant ladies in winter white that I saw while having tea at The Palace Hotel today.

Sweater: A white cableknit pullover from Urban Outfitters.
Skirt: A white tulle skirt with subtle sequins. Tulle skirts like these were everywhere, dressed up and down, in Japan.
Boots: A cute alternative to Uggs. These suede boots have a tiny wedge and shearling lining. Unfortunately, they're $500 on sale...pretty steep!
Jacket: This loose 1980's/1930's style jackets were popular in Japan. The light tweed camel makes me drool a bit. At $1100 on sale, I'll stick to coveting.
Gloves: Elbow length cashmere gloves.
Headband: A pretty beaded headband tops off the snowflake look.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ladies Activity Club: Sock Snowmen

Last night's LAC party was a fun and easy holiday craft. Lindsay hosted us for making sock snowmen, a project she remembered fondly as a kid and wanted to recreate.

Along with the project, she served wine, hot cider, hummus, jalapeno jam with cheese and a homemade chocolate cream pie.

Making the snowmen is super easy and the results are surprisingly adorable. All you need is a tube sock, rice, rubber bands, a glue gun and fabric/buttons/felt for the trim. Instructions online here.

Could be a great project for the kids table at your holiday party this year!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Coveted: Homestar Aqua Planetarium

There's one thing I really wanted to bring home from Japan but didn't: the Homestar Aqua Planetarium.

You see, in Japan, there's a whole category of gadgets designed around relaxation. From glowing humidifiers to floating fountains for the tub - it's serious business. I fell in love with the idea of this little planetarium for the bath but didn't want to carry it around in my luggage when I found it at the very start of the trip. Luckily, you can find them online here for just a little bit more. It's at the top of my Christmas wish list!

The video for the planetarium is perfectly Japanese, especially with the ubiquitous soothing samba playing in the background.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Weekend Roundup: Holiday Kick-Off

The holiday season arrived in full force this weekend, whether we were ready for it or not!

On Friday, I spent the day at the amazing Nob Hill Spa with the women from my office. A full six hours of lounging in a bathrobe, sitting on the terrace, hot tubs, saunas and facials. That night, we had our annual company holiday party and I wore my new white vintage shift.

Late start the next morning. Very lazy, we watched Street Thief on Netflix and ate pancakes. At 12:30, Rob and I took the car out to get Christmas card supplies and ran smack into terrible SantaCon traffic. It took forever! Back at the house, I made a big batch of glazed "ginger bees" based on the Tartine gingerbread recipe and wrote cards.

That evening, we packed up the cookies, bundled up and hit the holiday party circuit. Quick stop at a party in the building and then over to the Haight by train for a cookie exchange. Back home around midnight.

The next morning, we got up early to drive to the zoo. We met up with Seth, Amy, their baby and another friend with a baby to look at the animals. It was pretty warm when we first started out. We walked around at toddler speed, so had plenty of time to take photos with the scary, enormous owl:

...and get to know the moody mini donks.

We had lunch at the zoo and the weather took a turn for the absolute freezing as we walked around with the lions and giraffes. At 3:00, we were popsicles. On the way home, Rob and I stopped to buy a Christmas tree from our usual waterfront Delancey Street lot. Our tradition is to always get a tree still wrapped up and keep our fingers-crossed that it turns out to be a winner.

That tree turned out to be HUGE. We could barely carry it and had to run out to buy a new stand just to fit the trunk. It was supposed to be a six-footer, but I think it's nearly eight and about five feet across.

So we called in reinforcements. Margaret and Sean came over in the evening to help decorate and have dinner. It really feels like Christmas now!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Opera: Carmen

Margaret and I went to see Carmen at the opera last Friday. We met up with our friends Greg and Kevin at the show - which officially doubled my usual social scene in the lobby!

Carmen is fun because the music is so familiar, you can practically sing along. There's a love triangle, a bravado bullfighter and it's got plenty of stabbings. And the staging did not disappoint: a full cast of 157 (a new record?) with a 30-member children's choir and a two story set with flowing fountains.

At the time, I was pretty convinced I had a terminal case of jet lag. It was horrible! Except that my complete inability to sleep at night made it very easy to stay alert during the 3+ hour opera.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Travel: Japan Wrap-Up

So that's it! Our ten day trip to Japan covered in four blog posts. A few final thoughts:

Japan is awesome! There is no street crime, everything is super organized, people seem so relaxed. Almost every sign is in Japanese and English. Most restaurants have one person who speaks English or will be happy to help you figure it out with some pointing and smiling.

The trains are wild. I would say more "thorough" than "easy." But the larger stations will have a helpful uniformed guide who speaks English if you're confused. When in doubt, just keep staring at the map until it starts to make sense. I was the fastest ticket-slinger in the East by the time we left.

Cash is still king in Japan, so don't plan on using your credit cards in most places outside of large shopping malls and hotels. And when you need an ATM, don't panic when they don't work. You just need to go to any post office to get cash from their machines.

It's amazingly kid-friend, too. Many public restrooms have baby seats built in to the stalls, the buses have stroller straps and children as young as six happily take the train by themselves in adorable uniforms with bright hats.

There are some downsides, of course. It's expensive and most of the fun things (eating, shopping, visiting temples) have a $10 minimum price tag per person. It adds up if you want busy days with lots of sights. A shorter trip was definitely the right match for us. And, they smoke - at lot! - and inside restaurants, which surprised me.

So, if you're thinking of going: Go! You'll have an amazing time.

You can see all the photos from our trip online, or just my favorites.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Travel: Osaka

We came down the mountain from Koyasan and spent our last few days in Osaka. We were back at the same hotel as our first night but exploring the city for the first time. It was a bit of an adjustment to the hugeness and bustle of Osaka after staying at the temple! The service at the Hotel New Otani Osaka is excellent and we liked the location a bit outside the main city and right across from a major park.

Osaka is all about food and seems to really come alive at night - sort of a New Orleans vibe, but in a sprawling Japanese metropolis. Rob and I took the train down to the Dontonbori neighborhood our first night for some of the famous Osaka food: octopus balls called takoyaki and a sort-of vegetable omelet covered in fish flakes served on a hot grill at your table called okonomiyaki. The area is positively packed with animated restaurant signs, neon and lots of people. When we were there, politicians were making loud speeches from the tops of vans to the huge crowds.

Rob and I spent a couple hours down in the neighborhood after dinner - shopping at a 12-story sports store and discovering my favorite bookstore yet. Standard Bookstore had an incredible selection of things made by local artists, stationery, magazines, books, art supplies and jewelry. I bought half of my Christmas presents in this one shop:

Rob and I decided to walk back to our hotel from the neighborhood and discovered just how massive Osaka really is! Since everyone rides trains everywhere, it's pretty quiet once you're outside the main train stations. It took us a couple hours and a few moments of feeling lost, but we got a better sense of the city. A few blocks from our hotel, we passed this little cafe with bikes out front and a festive wedding reception upstairs:

It was Sunday the next morning and we had our first real "sleep in" of the trip. We read the international paper delivered by the hotel and watched a gardening show in Japanese on TV. At 10, we headed out by train to an event billed as a "large antique fair" at Tsurumiryokuchi. Classically Japanese, the fair consisted of about a dozen perfectly organized and neat little tables inside an auditorium pumping bossa nova. I picked up a tortoise shell comb and a few stamps. Next to the fair, we visited Sakuya Konohana Kan - a huge conservatory of flowers built for an international expo in 1990. Very impressive, with a huge lily pond garden, tropical hibiscus and even an arctic exhibition with tiny, refrigerated plants.

In the late afternoon, we met Alex in the Umeda neighborhood, the city's main shopping area. There are trains everywhere here with almost a million people a day going to the two main stations. It was surprisingly pretty. Most shopping in Osaka takes place in 10 or 12 story indoor malls with restaurants on top, but there are little cafes and outdoor shopping streets here too.

We had a shabu-shabu dinner at a nice place on top of one of the big malls. After dinner, the three of us walked over to the famous "Floating Garden." The base of the massive skyscraper had an incongruous Bavarian Christmas fair running - complete with those ugly German troll souvenirs and steins of beer. At the 39th floor, you have to take a suspended escalator to the to which is designed to appear "perched" on the top of two towers. My fear of heights had a field day! For our $8 admission, we got stars to write our wishes on, an interactive love fortune-telling lounge and photos in this awesome set-up:

Plus, of course, the crazy views of Osaka from the dark open-air deck at the top:

Rob, Alex and I spent a few hours with cocktails at the Sky Bar a couple floors below before calling it a night. The next day, we packed for home and checked out of our hotel. With a few hours and a little cash to burn, we left our luggage in a locker at the Tennoji station and shopped for gifts in a giant mall called Mio. Amazing stores! The exchange rate was the only thing preventing me from bringing absolutely everything home.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Travel: Koyasan

Another set of great reader suggestions led us to spend two nights at the Shojoshin Temple. Bobbi recommended Japanese Guest Houses as a source for booking traditional Ryokan hotels online and two anonymous readers recommended Koyasan.

It was quite the trek from Kyoto to the sleepy mountain town. Seven different transit lines from subways to trains to trams that are nearly vertical to go up steep hills and buses, with lunch at a stand-up ramen counter and lots of beautiful scenery along the way.

We arrived with light snow coming down on the town and found Shojoshin-in quickly. Our temple lodgings were super adorable. A small room with futon beds on the tatami mat floors, a living area with a low table equipped with a built in heater and blanket overlooking a balcony and koi pond, a sink, shrine and closet. The sliding doors don't lock and there's wifi - very Japan. The monks come to put giant hot water bottles in the beds in the afternoon and leave you fresh green tea along with small sweets.

It was definitely cold, even though we were only about 2,500 feet up and a few hours from warm Osaka. We pretty much wore all the clothes we brought when out exploring:

The temples were lovely and an interesting contrast to those in Kyoto. Matching the scenery, the paintings included lots of pine and winter scenes. Kongobuji Temple had a huge rock garden and the loveliest screens.

Dinner is served by the monks in your own private dinning room at 5:30. More about the food in a minute. After dinner, you can go to the bath until 9:00. Scrub clean first sitting on a small wood stool and then soak in a deep cedar tub filled with hot water. The hotel provides clean yukata robes and jackets for bath time.

To bed early because mandatory prayer service starts at 6:30. Waking up in the dark, we bundled up and went to the frost-covered temple across the grounds. It was so cold during the 45 minute service you could see the monk's breath as they chanted in the dark, incense-scented room - an image I'll never forget!

Breakfast is served immediately after the prayers, which brings us back to the food. The vegan, tofu-based shōjin-ryōri cuisine was outstanding. Tradition dictates that the monks can't waste any ingredients, must use five colors and five cooking styles, can't even use onions or root vegetables - anything that would kill a plant - but the end result is anything but plain. Dinner was about 16 different small dishes each night, the first night with a lemon theme and the second with mushrooms. Breakfast was miso soup, a fried tofu "omelet" in broth, pickles, cold cooked greens, sweet beans, rice, nori strips, soy sauce and tea. Maybe my favorite breakfast ever:

We also explored the cemetery and temple at Okunoin, nestled in a deep forest with serious moss, and checked off most of the rest of the town's temples and gardens. Koyosan was nearly deserted when we visited, very relaxing.

I definitely recommend a stay at Shojoshin-in for anyone going to Japan! The monks are so friendly, the setting is unbelievable and you'll never forget the food.

Travel: Arashiyama

Our friends who live in Japan, Alex and Mayumi, invited us to meet them in Arashiyama, a wooded neighborhood outside of Kyoto, for the Labor Day holiday during our visit.

Our first stop in the early morning was a monkey park. I wasn't sure what to expect but it was really great. The monkeys roam free on top of a mountain and, like everyone else in Japan, are extremely very well behaved. To feed them, you go inside a screened hut and pass apples and chestnuts through the grates. The rest of the time, you just wander around together by the koi pond and amazing view of Kyoto.

Down the hill, we went to the Tenryu Temple to wander the buildings, view painted screens and scoot through garden paths in our socks (is it just me or is wearing socks outside a childhood thrill?).

Local tree-spotters were out in force to catch the red maples on the holiday and I also took a million photos of leaves! The bamboo groves were pretty too. With our friends to help, we got a lot of potential Christmas card shots:

Mayumi used to have a restaurant and is serious about Japanese food, so we left the lunch choice up to her. She took us to an incredible place. I have no idea what it's called but through the magic of Google Maps, you can see the location and even street view here. We sat in a traditional tatami room with a view of a manicured garden, right behind that tree:

Lunch had about a dozen plates: pickled vegetables, cold soup with a poached egg, hot soup, tofu skin with lemon sauce, tofu "omelet" dumplings, dried fish the size of grains of rice, tiny portion of sweet ground pork, a special kind of tofu made with sesame, tempura vegetables, rice...and the main course: tofu cooked in a seaweed broth at the table, fished out into tiny dishes with soy sauce, fresh ginger and green onions. It was the simplest, best, dish:

After lunch, we took the train back to to the other side of Kyoto for a stop at Kiyomizu and walked through the historic streets around the site until the late night. It seemed like all of Japan was out for the holiday, exploring and dressed up in finery. I especially like the diversity of kimonos, these two young ladies had quite modern patterns and styling: